Collab Beers: When Two is Better than One

Ballast Point’s Swingin Friar in partnership with the San Diego Padres // Photo via Ballast Point

Few events get a beer geek’s heart aflutter more than two (or more) of their favorite breweries collaborating on a beer. Often, this means some hazy IPA or sugar-saturated imperial stout will bring the bearded masses to industrial parks early on Saturday mornings, but not always. Highly-acclaimed breweries like Jester King, Side Project, and Oxbow have all put their names on many beers with industry friends that span the range of mixed-fermentation saisons to barrel-aged behemoths.

To a cynic, it could seem like a money grab, a way to capitalize on brand recognition to maximize sales. At their best, though, collaborative efforts exhibit what makes beer so compelling: the spirit of like-minded folks creating something wonderful with their friends. This is especially true when breweries and collaborators come together to craft something in the spirit of true partnership, with both sides having equal parts in the creation of a recipe.

In recent years, beer collaborations have expanded beyond the communion between industry peers and crossed over into other cultures. Beer, long a staple at sports venues and an accompaniment to live music, has branded itself alongside those entities as well as other areas fully outside of the beer world—think coffee shops and museums. Often the collaborations reflect support of a local team or favorite band. It’s a way to show mutual admiration.

Samuel Adams official beer of the Boston Red Sox packaging // Photo via Sam Adams

Major League Baseball has taken the lead on the beer-and-sports playing field. Sam Adams is the official beer sponsor of the Boston Red Sox, New York’s Blue Point Brewing created a Pinstripe Pils in a can designed to look like the Yankees uniform, and L.A.’s Golden Road sells its Dodgers Blonde Ale at Dodger Stadium.

In 2017, Kansas City stalwart Boulevard Brewing became the official craft beer of the Royals—at the time the biggest craft sponsorship deal in MLB. The two brands already had a longstanding relationship: Boulevard has been a mainstay on draft at “The K.” But the partnership deal included a way to embed Boulevard even further into the brains (and wallets) of Royals fans by crafting a Royals-themed beer, a Mexican-style lager called “¡Vamos!” which translates to “Let’s go!” echoing the familiar Kauffman Stadium chant of “Let’s go, Royals.”

In San Diego, Ballast Point crafted the Swingin’ Friar Ale for the hometown Padres, but the city’s most acclaimed pairing is AleSmith’s contribution: a beer called San Diego Pale Ale .394, named to denote Hall of Fame slugger Tony Gwynn’s batting average in 1994’s strike-shortened season. The beer was conceived in 2014 and designed with the help of Gwynn and his family, who taste-tested batches of the ale. Gwynn passed away later that year.

While beer has long been a part of baseball’s fabric, the Gwynn beer made some crossover fans. “Baseball and beer have a long history together, so the idea of brewing a beer with a Hall of Famer had great appeal,” says Peter Zien, CEO and owner of AleSmith Brewing Company. “Being baseball lovers ourselves, we assumed .394 would be appealing to both Tony Gwynn fans and those of the sport. […] People may have tried it for Tony the first time, but they kept coming back.”

The brewery donates a portion of proceeds of the beer to the Tony and Alicia Gwynn Foundation, which provides educational and financial resources to underserved members of the San Diego community, and has built a museum at their tasting room for the late Padres Hall of Famer.

When sports arenas and stadiums aren’t hosting ball games, the parking lots and seats fill up with another demographic of drinker. Concert-goers enjoy the camaraderie of a pre-game as much as anyone. From hip-hop heads to Parrot Heads, music has provided the soundtrack to many imbibing session. Acts like The Flaming Lips, Run the Jewels, and Metallica have all lent their names (with varying levels of involvement in the actual process) to beer labels. The band …Of a Revolution (more commonly known as O.A.R), long associated with college parties and beer pong, recently partnered with Great Lakes Brewing Company to craft an amber lager called The Mighty, which will be for sale this summer at concerts in support of their newest album of the same name.

“We’ve always believed that beer and music are the best pairing, so an O.A.R collaboration was a great opportunity to fully express that,” says Marissa DeSantis, Great Lakes’ public relations supervisor. “We know the band has a big following here in Ohio.”

The band played an active role in the creation of the beer, DeSantis adds. “The guys were involved pretty early in conversations about possible styles that would pair well with long summer nights and fan tailgates on tour, and we invited them in to taste some style examples and refine the flavor profile we wanted to achieve,” she says. “It was great to work directly with the band and bounce ideas off each other—that’s true collaboration.”

The band members of O.A.R. watching the brewing process at Great Lakes Brewing // Photo via Great Lakes Brewing Company

Dogfish Head’s music series includes six beers brewed to inspire memories of great albums and iconic bands. The industry leaders down in Delaware have honored Miles Davis, the Grateful Dead, and Pearl Jam, among a few others. Following the announcement of their merger with Boston Beer Company in May, perhaps music fans will see even more Dad Rock on their favorite beer labels.

Fandom manifests itself in a number of ways, and not dissimilar from collecting apparel or bumper stickers or limited edition artwork, a beer can featuring the name of a fan’s favorite band is yet another way to show their support. Plus, unlike wearing the T-shirt of the band you’re going to see, drinking a beer with a band’s name on it at the concert doesn’t make you “that guy.” (We hope.)

Perhaps the most interesting collaborative relationship is that between Chicago’s Off Color Brewing and the Field Museum of Natural History. The genesis of this project was the Field Museum’s desire to curate a collection of beers that tied together the people, places, and artifacts it highlights in the same way as with the museum’s other exhibits. Off Color agreed to jump on board with the contingency being that they got to work with the scientists, and soon had brewed Tooth & Claw, a dry-hopped Pilsner named after the museum’s Tyrannosaurus Rex named Sue. The beer has since become the house beer at Field.

Off Color Brewing’s new Tooth and Claw label design for their partnership with The Field Museum // Photo via Off Color Brewing

This partnership, born out of a friendship between a mutual beekeeping friend of the Field Museum and Off Color co-owner John Laffler, reflects the two entities’ common interest in preserving the history of the brewing process. Along with Tooth & Claw, the project has inspired beers such as Wari, a Chicha de Molle-inspired ale, and QingMing, a Chang-inspired ale. (QingMing is a re-creation of a beverage found from artifacts discovered during an archeological dig and is meant to honor China’s “unique contribution to the production of alcoholic beverages,” says Laffler.)

“These beers would not have been possible without the knowledge of the scientists who worked alongside us on these projects,” says Off Color co-owner Dave Bleitner.

Other breweries—namely Iowa’s Toppling Goliath, whose Pseudo Sue Pale Ale has Sue the T. Rex on its packaging, and Illinois-based Temperance Brewing—have also collaborated with the museum.

Ultimately, cross-branding makes sense on both sides of the equation: breweries can introduce themselves to a different demographic of drinker whose interests often bring them to a ballpark instead of a brewery; Museums can serve an ale with their archeology. Collaborations are about expanding horizons, experimentation, and, yes, making a few more dollars.

“It’s not much of a story if we just put someone’s name on a label and call it a day,” said DeSantis.